Augustana, Art Museum Clean Up After Slough Drains

Jun 8, 2017

Crews have been working this week at Augustana College after a drainage pipe under the Slough failed on Saturday. 

The pipe runs from the slough, across campus, where a sinkhole formed near the Carver P.E. Center. Water backed up through the plumbing in several buildings.

A team from Serv-Pro Water Clean Up loaded trash and equipment into their bright green trucks in front of Centennial Hall Wednesday afternoon. They had been working to remove water and dry out the basement of the Augustana Teaching Museum of Art.

Two men from the Conservation Center in Chicago load artwork to drive to the city for testing.
Credit Lacy Scarmana / WVIK

On the other side of the building, two men from the Conservation Center in Chicago were loading art from the museum's collection into a van. They took nearly 1,000 pieces — just shy of a quarter of the collection — to their center in Chicago for testing.

Museum Director Claire Kovacs says the works didn't get wet, but conservators will look at each piece individually to make sure there is no secondary damage.

"The reason the number is so high is because we have been shifting toward storing our works on paper in line with best practices, which is storing them flat and in flat files," Kovacs says. "One of those flat file cabinets was in the area that the water came into, so it didn't get water on any of the works themselves, but it was exposed to this locally high humidity."

When Kovacs arrived on campus Saturday, she put on her rubber boots and sloshed through the lower level of Centennial Hall. A quarter to half an inch of water and silt had made its way into art storage and the object study room. The galleries themselves were already empty for the summer. The highest water level in the display area was three to four inches.

"We have sandless sand bags that go up in front of the doors, and the reason that they're sandless is because I want to make sure anyone who finds this can quickly act to protect the works. They weigh about a pound, instead of 80 pounds like sandbags," she says.

The bags are filled with a hydrophilic material that absorbs water and swells to form a barrier. This is the third time during Kovacs' tenure at Augustana that she's dealt with water in the art museum. Water also entered the building three years ago, right before she became director. After that incident, some artwork did need conservation work.

Augustana College spokesman Sam Schlouch says a sewer line that feeds into the drainage system tends to back up into the bathrooms in the lower gallery.

"I'm sure many people at home have had sewer backups or water backups in their own homes, and that's similar to what we're experiencing here," Schlouch says.

He says this happens when there's a lot of rain — or a failed pipe.

"We would like to talk about potential solutions, but I don't have anything right now that's in the works," he says. "A lot of them are kind of cost prohibitive, but we're open to that."

Three years ago, Chris Mortenson, a former assistant adjuct professor of photography at Augustana, was in the early stage of photographing works in the collection when he found out that part of the museum had flooded. He says it will be hard to stop it from happening again.

"It's vastly important to be able to give art a space that remains dry," Mortenson says. "It's in the basement, downhill from the rest of campus and downhill, essentially, from the Slough. So when that stuff floods, there's only one way that it's going to run, and it's going to run down."

Kovacs has done all she can to prevent art from being damaged. She and the college are trying to find somewhere else to store all the paintings, sculptures and textiles.

"But that's not something that can happen immediately, because there are a number of things that we need to take into consideration," she says.

They have to find a place that's secure, climate controlled, has enough space, and that is accessible to students, faculty and community members who view artwork that isn't on display. Augustana has no plans to relocate the museum at this time.

Schlouch says all the precautions, including having the works tested in Chicago, are in place because the college takes pride in its art collection.

"Anything that we can do to help keep the collection safe and on display is something that we want to do and it's something that Claire takes very seriously as a major part of her job," Schlouch says.

In the meantime, Kovacs has placed her rubber boots by the door of her office.

"I don't want to go again, but I am prepared," she says. "I will, but obviously I will put my boots on."

Slough Update

Credit Lacy Scarmana / WVIK

Across campus, back at the scene of the failed pipe, a generator sat in the middle of the nearly empty slough Wednesday.

"There are still some shallow ponds in the slough where there are some fish that are still there," Schlouch says. "Hopefully we'll be able to get the slough back up and running here soon enough that we'll have another beautiful section of campus to look at." 

Schlouch says he doesn't know exactly how many thousands of gallons of water made its way into other parts of campus.

"We are still assessing and repairing — I don't even have a timeline on how long this is going to take, but we're grateful for the partnership of the city of Rock Island in getting this situation assessed and hopefully fixed relatively quickly." 

In the meantime, the college is accepting donations for the recovery process.

"Many of the alumni asked when they saw what had happened, you know, how can I help support that? As we look forward to repairs, we also hope to enhance the slough by perhaps adding some new lighting, some new pathways, erosion control, that sort of thing."